In the first local election since President Donald Trump won a surprise victory last fall, candidates for office in Tacoma are mounting campaigns that address national issues almost as much as they address local ones.
A leading example in Tacoma: The liquefied natural-gas plant planned for the Tideflats.
Plans for the plant have become a defining issue in City Council and Port of Tacoma commission races, thrust into the campaign discourse at almost every turn.
Tacoma’s LNG issue is national in scale because of environmental opposition to fracked natural gas, as well as recent high profile protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Never miss a local story.
It’s a local, and personal, concern for residents because of fears about whether it’s safe.
Talk of LNG has been unavoidable this campaign cycle. In forums, on podcasts and at campaign events, candidates are asked again and again for their views on the planned 8-million gallon plant — and whether they would try to stop it, despite the fact that permitting is underway.
The fight over the LNG plant also highlights Tacoma’s increasingly progressive politics, and how the tactics of those on the left who are opposed to fossil fuels at Tacoma’s port are shifting.
That the plant rose to the fore of campaign issues well before the Aug. 1 primary should come as no surprise, according to Bill Baarmsa, a Tacoma historian and former mayor. What preceded the fervor was one of Tacoma’s biggest political moments, Baarsma said: The fight against a huge methanol facility.
Many Tacomans sprang into action when a Chinese company came to the City of Destiny with plans to build the world’s biggest methanol plant.
Residents, environmental activists, and people from all walks of life and political backgrounds waded in, launching protests and spawning activist groups dedicated to fighting fossil-fuel expansion and guarding the city’s water supply from big corporations.
You look at these events that have been transformative politically, and I think the most recent one is the methanol plant and the demise of the largest methanol plant in the world. And when it was first proposed, all the policy makers were lined up in support
Tacoma historian and former mayor Bill Baarsma
Amid the uproar, the methanol project was canceled.
“You look at these events that have been transformative politically, and I think the most recent one is the methanol plant and the demise of the largest methanol plant in the world. And when it was first proposed, all the policy makers were lined up in support,” Baarsma said.
“When I went to the convention center and saw 1,200 people show up at a public hearing” on the methanol project, he added, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Councilman Ryan Mello said the residents he’s talked to during walking trips in neighborhoods are seriously worried about climate change . For many, the LNG plant is a physical manifestation of those fears, going up in their backyard.
“LNG and fossil fuels are top-of-mind issues,” Mello said. “I think it’s a proxy for folks’ concern about climate, and it’s the one tangible thing folks think they can influence locally, now.”
Ben Anderstone, a consultant for Democratic campaigns with Progressive Strategies NW (which is currently working with three City Council candidates), said many progressives have been spurred to running for local office after Trump’s election. As a result, local politics has started to take on national issues more and more.
“I think the candidates are increasingly being asked questions to test their progressive credentials, and that I think is a bit of a change,” Anderstone said. “I’m hearing a lot less about potholes this year and a lot more about LNG, and the Northwest Detention Center and issues like that. Activist issues are coming to the fore more.”
I think the candidates are increasingly being asked questions to test their progressive credentials, and that I think is a bit of a change. I’m hearing a lot less about potholes this year and a lot more about LNG, and the Northwest Detention Center and issues like that. Activist issues are coming to the fore more
Democratic political consultant Ben Anderstone
National issues around increasing the minimum wage, police accountability, immigrant rights, sanctuary city status, and the environment (Tacoma also has a brand new plastic bag ban) have organically cropped up here in the last several years, political observers pointed out, and many times Tacoma has leaned into progressive positions.
Residents voted for a phased-in $12 minimum wage in 2015, a year before state voters approved an even higher minimum wage.
Earlier that year, the city developed the Project PEACE initiative to improve relations between police, underrepresented communities and people of color.
The City Council also voted in 2015 to become a Welcoming City to immigrants and refugees, and earlier this year created a task force to help those groups — but, to the frustration of many in Tacoma’s liberal circles, the council stopped short of becoming a sanctuary city, partly in fear of risking federal funding.
And as local electeds denounced the privately-run immigration detention center on the Tideflats, the council took steps this year to keep it from expanding.
Across the country, left-leaning cities are trending more liberal, as rural and right-leaning areas are leaning more conservative, Anderstone said. That could be partly responsible for the tonal shift in this election.
Meredith Neal is one of five candidates vying for at-large City Council, Position 6. Neal and mayoral candidate Evelyn Lopez (who’s working with Progressive Strategies Northwest) are both new to running for political office. In separate interviews, they told the Citizen Tacoma podcast they felt the pull to run after Trump was elected.
That’s become a routine story this cycle, Anderstone said.
On the podcast, both candidates were pressed about their views on LNG. Neal said she drew gasps at a recent forum when she voiced support for the LNG plant as a bridge to a cleaner future — less polluting for fueling ships than bunker fuel, but not the best ultimate solution.
Lopez has been vocally opposed to the LNG project throughout her campaign.
I don’t think Tacoma is seeing a progressive political movement like Seattle has. What we’re seeing is progressive candidates are simply better organized and mounting more competent campaigns
Republican political consultant Alex Hays
“I will try my damnedest to get it stopped,” she said at a candidate forum this week, but acknowledged that the project might be too far along or out of the city’s hands.
Tacoma, like many West Coast cities, has steadily trended more progressive over the decades, Baarsma said.
While there are certainly people in Tacoma who are in favor of the LNG plant, or at least find it more palatable than methanol, the fossil-fuel activists have taken the limelight.
They show up en masse to City Council meetings, stage protests and rallies and dominate social media. Socialist City Council candidate Sarah Morken made news when she got arrested during a protest of the plant.
Alex Hays is a Republican political consultant who is active in local campaigns.
Hays said that, like the local activists, progressive-leaning City Council candidates have done a good job running campaigns and getting attention this election cycle.
That doesn’t mean that the city itself is getting more liberal, Hays said.
“I don’t think Tacoma is seeing a progressive political movement like Seattle has,” Hays said. “What we’re seeing is progressive candidates are simply better organized and mounting more competent campaigns.
“If you look at those candidates who are mounting credible campaigns, I don’t perceive them necessarily as being the left candidates — it’s more accurate to perceive them as coming out of the City Council/Democratic establishment,” Hays added. “Usually when you’ve proceeded up the ranks in the establishment, you’ve developed the skill sets and personal connections to be more successful.”